Why It’s So Hard to Create a Product That Has Universal Appeal

Designers face an increasingly difficult task.

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BY Quora - 08 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

What behavioral economics studies should every digital product designer working in behavior change read? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by David Cole, Director of Design at Quora, on Quora:

One behavioral economics paper that has left a lasting impression on me is called The weirdest people in the world? by Joe Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. Generally I think Joe Henrich is doing incredibly fascinating work and I highly recommend digging into his other stuff.

Here's the abstract for that paper:

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world's top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers - often implicitly - assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these "standard subjects" are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species - frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior - hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

In brief: experiments on the behaviors of Americans rarely generalize to predict the behaviors of the rest of the world population.

This has clear applications to digital product design. Software allows our work to reach nearly every culture in the world, but many of the companies producing the most widely-used software are centered here in America -- and liberal, urban, coastal America to boot. This means that we should be very careful about drawing conclusions based on our personal experiences and intuitions (if we're American/Western), or even the observed behaviors of local people that we study.

Look at the list of domains again, and consider how wildly different these dimensions are:

  • visual perception
  • fairness
  • cooperation
  • spatial reasoning
  • categorization and inferential induction
  • moral reasoning
  • reasoning styles
  • self-concepts and related motivations
  • the heritability of IQ

Just to pick one off the list, visual perception is a domain that I personally would not have expected to vary heavily across cultures -- it just seems way too fundamental/primitive. So here's one of the relevant findings in the paper:

This is the Mller-Lyer illusion, which you probably recognize. These lines are the same length, but appear to be different due to the orientation of the arrows at the ends. According to the study referenced in the paper, the strength of this illusion varies heavily across cultures. What they did was extend the length of the first line until subjects felt like the lines were equal in length. This chart shows how much they had to modify the line to produce that "point of subjective equality" (PSE):

On the far right end, American undergrads require the top line to be ~20% longer than the bottom line before they appear to be the same length. On the far left end, San foragers from the South African desert don't even experience the illusion to begin with: the lines already look the same length!

For me, these kinds of findings present a serious challenge to how designers approach their work. In one sense, designers are akin to any working professional in that they study a specialized body of knowledge and learn how to apply it in practical settings. For example, we know that tap targets below a certain size are likely to lead to people mis-tapping an interface element. Once you learn that, and the associated size considerations, you bake that into your work. A lot of design works that way.

But in many cases, designers aren't simply just applying things we've learned. Frequently we operate much more like a chef: yes, there are a bunch of rules and processes we're applying, but tasting the finished product is how we know we've taken the experience from good to great. There are many subtleties to the human experience and formalized processes struggle to fully capture everything we care about. To recognize this, you just need to consider our total inability to predict which products, restaurants, movies, songs, etc. will succeed. We simply do not know enough about these highly subjective areas, at least not at the level of rational reasoning and prediction.

But if designers can't reliably generalize based on their first-hand experience, because so many of these facets vary heavily across cultures, how are we to evaluate these aspects of our work? I don't have a comprehensive answer to that question, but it's deeply important to our craft and something I hope to better understand over time. At a minimum, staying vigilant about these risks seems important for "every product designer working in behavioral change".

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